Portraits of Americans in Arabic Literature

Just as there are a variety of Arabs in Anglo-American literature, there are a variety of Anglo-Americans in Arabic literature:

Certainly, “the American” doesn’t loom as large in Arabic literature as “the Arab” does in Anglo-American thrillers. But there are depictions, both interesting and strange, and interesting-strange. There are also dead-on, laugh-out-loud depictions, like Jack in Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club, a novel that was written in English.

In literary Arabic novels, Americans usually don’t get the one-dimensional treatment.

Even when they’re “bad guys,” Americans in Arabic literature are generally multi-dimensional, as with Philip Anderson, the CIA operative in Syrian novelist Khaled al-Khalifa’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction-shortlisted In Praise of Hatred (trans. Leri Price). “One autumn day some years earlier, Abdullah arrived in Peshawar from Islamabad, exhausted from the journey and a long night spent in discussions with his friend Philip Anderson. They had both quickly left off the small-talk and their conversation began to exhibit clear signs of mutual distrust, due to the nature of their mission. This didn’t, however, prevent them from exchanging some small luxury gifts.” Anderson is certainly complicit in what happens in Afghanistan, but he is not a flat character.

Military and government workers appear in other guises, such as in Libyan novelist Ibrahim al-Koni’s Bleeding of the Stone, (trans. May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley). The American officer John Parker is a Sufi, although he also helps slaughter gazelles.

Certainly, Americans are bound to appear in some form in recent Iraqi novels and short stories. In many, however, they are peripheral — Hassan Blasim has been asked why he doesn’t put more Americans in his work; he suggested that is work for American writers. In Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer (trans. Antoon), American characters are similarly peripheral, although they are present: “The driver turned the flasher on and a man wearing khaki came out of the passenger side. He approached the group which had been exchanging good wishes and congratulations and asked who had used the camera — ‘Photography is not allowed here.’ He snatched the camera away from one of the female students, took the film out and warned everyone not to do it again. He went outside, got into the car and took off. Most of us were surprised, but we later realized that the presidential palace was just across the river. Now the Americans have occupied it and surrounded it with walls and checkpoints; our new rulers can live far away from us.”

These are American characters who have traveled to Arab countries. There are also many novels that center on an Arab protagonist who has moved to the US, such as Sonallah Ibrahim’s Amrikanli (a professor in San Francisco), Ezzedine Choukri Fishere’s Embrace at Brooklyn Bridge, and Miral al-Tahawy’s Naguib Mahfouz Medal-winning Brooklyn Heights (trans. Samah Selim).

And what if these American characters don’t resonate with Americans? They might be re-shaped in translation. With Bahaa Abdelmeguid’s Sleeping with Strangers, translator Chip Rossetti describes making some “minor corrections,” while leaving other things that might feel strange or unbelievable to a US audience. Inaam Kachachi’s IPAF-shortlisted American Granddaughter — written by an Iraqi author who lives in Paris — also rings stereotypical at some points in its depictions of Americans, as well as other Arab characters.

Some books use American characters to move into larger discussions. In Yusuf Idris’s New York 80 (trans. Rasheed El-Enany), an unnamed Egyptian HE is talking to a New York prostitute SHE, who late in the novella is named as Pamela Graham. They have a long fight over the meaning of her work. Here, Pamela Graham: “What can I say to you? People grow up and yet continue to think like children. You disapprove of my job as prostitute, as if I was your mother caught sinning. My dear, sexual relations between man and woman have been a business deal since the beginning of history. It could be nothing else.”

Here, the prostitute-character is also “stereotypical,” but since she’s an archetype, leading into a discussion about sex, it hardly matters.

The final essay-story in Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Revolt of the Young, which he published in 1984, also travels to the US and follows the (fictional) trial of four young people who feigned blowing up the Statue of Liberty in order to get on trial. Although certain aspects of the way they describe their actions don’t ring true, such as when the prosecutor uses the phrase “capitalist imperialist society,” it’s nonetheless — like New York 80 — an interesting way of looking at Egyptians looking at Americans.   

And, the last world on Americans from Jack:

“‘Well,’ he said, ‘we are a team of people going from one country to another, living with the people, the same way the people are living, sharing their everyday lives, and finding out what they truly think of the States, and finding out how we can foster and encourage friendship between us and you.’ He pulled up a chair and sat, his face near mine, his hand on the back of my chair; every sentence emphasized neatly and concisely. I remember a pair of American young men belonging to the Mormon sect, who rang at my door in London one day. In the same neat and earnest way, they recited the fact that God is divided into three distinct entities . . . or is it the other way around, I forget which.”